Traveller's Guide: Slovenia
This Central European country has a vast amount to offer: deep glacial lakes, limestone mountains, river valleys and ancient churches.
Saturday 10 July 2010
A new country?
In a sense. This small but startlingly picturesque country, at the top of the Adriatic, wedged between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, has been independent only since 1991. In the Ten Day War that year, it broke free from the imploding Yugoslavia. Before that, Slovenia was for centuries under Habsburg rule, until 1918, when it joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – later recast as Yugoslavia.
Modern Slovenia joined the EU in 2004. With a population of little more than two million occupying an area the size of Wales, it has a vast amount to offer: white limestone mountains and deep glacial lakes, green river valleys and pristine forests, hilltop castles and ancient churches, subterranean curiosities and sweeping vineyards.
Where should I start?
Lovely Ljubljana. Slovenia's sophisticated capital city is a confection of baroque and Habsburg architecture, handsome churches, leafy squares and cool riverside cafés and restaurants. Architecturally, the city owes much to the work of Joze Plecnik (1872-1957), who invested the city with a remarkable number of structures, the most celebrated of which is the Triple Bridge linking the two sides of the languid Ljubljanica river.
Look out, too, for the Shoemaker's Bridge a little further along; the gently curving Market Colonnade; and, most conspicuously, the National and University Library, which stands across from Plecnik's striking Krizanke open-air theatre, venue for the city's brilliantly eclectic International Summer Festival ( ljubljanafestival.si ). The tourist information centre (00 386 1 306 1215; visitljubljana.si ) can arrange "Plecnik city tours", costing €50 for a group of five.
Taking a stroll along the narrow, cobbled streets of the pretty Old Town, with its handsome orange- and red-roofed townhouses, arty shops and pavement cafés, you'll chance upon several paths snaking up to the 16th-century castle (or take the funicular, €3, to the top). From here, there are superlative views of the city and the Kamniske Alps in the distance.
A ticket to the castle's Clock Tower costs €3; admission to the Virtual Museum – which cleverly documents the city's history – is €6; a combined ticket is €8.
With time to spare, take a walk down to the village-like suburb of Krakovo, all squat houses and neat rows of lovingly tended allotments. The results of which sustain the colourful outdoor market on Vodnik Square (8am-4pm daily except Sunday).
The most engaging of the city's hotels is the Allegro (00 386 5 911 9620; allegrohotel.si ), a finely restored townhouse featuring 12 individually styled rooms; doubles start at €130, including breakfast.
For something cheaper, head to the funky Hostel Celica (00 386 1 230 9700; souhostel.com ), occupying the remnants of a military prison; a two-person "cell" with shared bathroom costs €56, and a dorm bed is €21; rates include breakfast.
Most enjoyable of the city's restaurants is the beautifully understated Pri Skofu at 8 Recna, a little back-street hideaway with no menu as such but serving house specialities such as black risotto. Away from the clutch of sociable cafés and bars strung along the banks of the Ljubljanica, more vigorous nightlife is to be had at Metelkova mesto, a cosmopolitan gang of bars and clubs indulging in everything from dance and rock, to punk, metal and performance art.
A lake district...
The country's star turn is Lake Bled, with its iconic island church set fair in the centre of the lake. The island can be reached by stretch gondolas, called pletnas, which depart from various points around the lake (€12), though much more fun is a do-it-yourself rowing boat (€10 per hour).
The graceful Vila Preseren (00 386 4 575 2510; villa-preseren.com ) has sumptuous double rooms for €154 (falling to €136 off season), including breakfast; its wood-decked terrace restaurant offers classy Mediterranean cuisine and wonderful lake views.
Lake Bohinj is maestically situated within a bowl of thickly forested mountains about 25km west of Bled. A lakeshore walk should take about four hours, or you can just mess about in the warm, shallow waters.
Otherwise, there are numerous attractions close by: take a ride on the Vogel cable car (8am-6pm, departing every half-hour; €13 return) for glorious vistas of the serried peaks opposite; visit the photogenic Savica Waterfall (8am-7pm, April-October, €2.50); or take a leisurely walk among the huddle of sleepy villages that are a short distance from the lake. Here you'll see some superb examples of the double hayrack, a unique feature of the Slovenian landscape.
... and mountains
Wedged into the north-west corner of the country, the limestone Julian Alps contain the country's highest peaks, with Triglav ("Three Heads") topping the lot at 2,864m. There's superb hiking and climbing here, and if you don't fancy going it alone, Humanfish (00 386 51 321 383; humanfish.com ) can arrange any number of treks, including an assault on Triglav itself; a two-day trip costs €179 per person, including a mountain guide, dinner and breakfast – plus luggage storage.
In winter these mountains make way for thousands of skiers. The most testing slopes are those at Kobla ( bohinj.si/kobla ) and Vogel ( vogel.si ), two resorts near Lake Bohinj, while the lower altitude resort of Kranjksa Gora ( kranjska-gora.si ) is ideal for families.
Snowboarders will appreciate Krvavec ( rtc-krvavec.si ), near Ljubljana, which is also home to an igloo village ( eskimska-vas.si ); for €89 per person you receive a night's accommodation inside a cosy little ice cavern, night snow-shoeing, dinner, drinks in the ice bar, and breakfast.
Further east the Karavanke and Kamniske-Savinje ranges are no less exhilarating. The latter showcases Logarska Dolina, an impossibly gorgeous Alpine valley carpeted with flower-speckled meadows and hemmed in by a crest of jagged peaks.
There are plenty of activities available here, such as archery, rock climbing and paragliding, all of which can be organised from the valley's information hut (00 386 3 838 9004; logarska-dolina.si ).
Skirting the Croatian border, the prolifically forested Sneznik plateau has more terrific walking, and also shelters Slovenia's greatest concentration of large mammals, including lynx, wolf and a sizeable brown bear population. Bears also roam the virgin forests of nearby Kocevski Rog, itself much flatter rambling territory. Mountain bikers can enjoy more than 1,000km of marked trails in the Koroska mountains near the Austrian border; a dedicated cyclists' hotel at the Koros tourist farm in Jamnica (00 386 2 870 3060; mtbpark.com ) has bed and breakfast accommodation for €25, as well as bike hire and guided tours.
Pressed up hard against the Italian border, the magisterial Soca Valley attracts thrill-seekers of all persuasions to the foaming, milky blue-green waters of its eponymous river.
The valley's main adventure sports centre is Bovec, where Bovec Rafting Team (00 386 5 388 6128; bovec-rafting-team.com ) offers white-water rafting (€37), hydrospeed (€46), canyoning (€45) and a kayak school (€82 per day) among other activities.
Further down the valley, Kobarid's absorbing museum (00 386 5 589 0000; kobariski-muzej.si ; daily 9am-6pm; €5) documents the ferocious battles that took place hereabouts during the First World War.
Just outside town, Hisa Franko (00 386 5 389 4120; hisafranko.com ) has handsomely furnished double rooms from €110 including breakfast, while its sublime restaurant counts on a breathtakingly imaginative menu.
The picturesque dams and rapids of the lovely Kolpa River in the south of the country also meet the mark for water-bound activities. Kovac Sports in Osilnica (00 386 1 894 1508; kovac-kolpa.com ) organises rafting, kayaking and canoeing, each activity costing about €25.
The Slovenian coastline is just 46km long, yet it packs in an awful lot. Beaches tend to be of the rock, concrete or grass variety, though there is the odd stretch of sand. Those at Portoroz and Izola are the best, ideal for kids and with plenty of water sports available too.
Most beaches have decent facilities, with showers and changing areas, lifeguards on hand, and umbrellas and loungers available for hire.
The coast's main pull, however, is its historic towns. Piran ( portoroz.si ), in particular, delights with its Venetian-inspired architecture; from Tartini Square, pick your way through the maze of time-worn streets, Italianate squares and exquisite little churches to the waterfront promenade.
There's welcoming accommodation at both the six-room Max Hotel (00 386 5 673 3436; maxpiran.com ; doubles €70 including breakfast), and the elegant Hotel Tartini (00 386 5 671 1000; hotel-tartini-piran.com ), which has sea-facing doubles from €112 including breakfast.
Avoid the slew of restaurants on the promenade and head to homely Pri Mari, where you can take your pick from the day's freshly caught haul.
The port town of Koper ( koper.si ) retains an exceptionally pretty medieval core. A dense lattice of arched alleys converge on the main square, Titov trg, framed on one side by the fine Praetorian Palace and on the other, the Gothic-style Loggia.
While here, kick back with a cappuccino at the smart Loggia terrace café. A worthwhile local excursion is to the saltpans in Secovlje ( soline.si ), where an enlightening museum and visitor centre (8am-10pm daily, €5) document the practice of salt V C harvesting, which has been taking place here since the 14th century.
And with a pinch of salt?
Slovenian food is essentially a synthesis of Austrian, Mediterranean and Balkan culinary influences. Gastronomically, the easternmost region of Prekmurje bordering Hungary is one of the most rewarding; the Magyar influence is manifest in bograc, a steaming goulash pot of mixed meats, onions and potatoes; this dish is enthusiastically celebrated each August at the Bogracfest in Lendava.
Also from the region is gibanica, a delicious layered pastry stuffed with sweet cottage cheese, poppy seeds, walnuts, apple and cream. Another popular dessert is potica, a nutty loaf/cake infused with tarragon, cinnamon and honey.
A more curious delicacy is the humble little dormouse, which is typically eaten in soups with rice, noodles and dumplings, or as a goulash. Indeed, dormouse trapping is a long standing ethnic tradition in rural Slovenia, hunted not only for its meat but also for its fur (for caps) and oil (for machines and medication).
Something to quench my thirst?
Slovenian wine is superb, and with some 14 wine-growing districts to choose from, you'll be spoilt for choice. The lovely, sunny slopes of the Goriska Brda hills bordering Italy yield a wide variety of both red and white wines – not least the dry slamno vino (straw wine), cultivated from the indigenous Rebula grape.
Local vintners to look out for include Simcic (00 386 5 395 9200; simcic.si ), in Ceglo, and Klinec (00 386 5 304 5092; klinec.si ), in Medana; the latter has smart double rooms from €66 including breakfast, while its owners organise the Days of Poetry and Wine Festival in August. The tourist office in Goriska's main town, Dobrovo, can furnish you with more information on visiting the many different cellars (00 386 5 395 9594; brda.si ).
Over in the east of the country, the Ljutomer and Maribor wine regions are overwhelmingly white-wine territory.
At the highly regarded Protner winery in Malecnik (00 386 2 473 2101; joannes.si ), you can sample Renski Rizling, Chardonnay and Muscat as you chomp on grilled blood sausages.
In Maribor itself, the 400-year-old vine fronting the Old Vine House on the Lent waterfront is reputedly the world's oldest. An exhibition inside the house relays the history of the vine, while its ceremonial harvesting takes place in September – about 35 litres of Zametna Crnina (Black Velvet) are produced each year.
Finally, no visit to the Karst is complete without a glass of spiky, cherry-red Teran wine and a few slices of dry-cured prsut ham.
Tourist farms: Back to nature
Tourist farms are scattered across the Slovenian countryside. These idyllic rural retreats offer simple, clean and comfortable accommodation with home cooking. Many also have animals for children to tend. Expect to pay around €45 for a double room including breakfast, and a further €10 for dinner. The website farmtourism.si has a list of all the country's tourist farms.
Slovenia has a good spread of campsites, most of which are clean and well-appointed. Mountain huts (koca or dom) abound in the hills and mountains. Most offer a dorm bed for around €15 and at some huts a simple, filling meal is available for a few euros more.
Many huts are open all year round, though those at higher altitude are usually only open between June and September.
Travel essentials: Slovenia
Adria Airways (020-7734 7360; adria.si ) flies twice a day from Gatwick to Ljubljana, and in the summer flies twice a week from Manchester; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com ) flies daily from Stansted. An often-cheaper alternative is to fly with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ) to Trieste in Italy or Graz in Austria, both of which are just a short hop across the border with Slovenia.
Slovenia’s efficient and well co-ordinated bus ( ap-ljubljana.si ) and rail ( slo-zeleznice.si ) networks will get you to where you want with the minimum of fuss and expense; Ljubljana to Piran takes two hours by bus; the Inter-City Express from the capital to Maribor takes less than two hours and costs €14. Driving is a joy, thanks to the short distances, scenic surroundings and light traffic. The local Europcar rep is ABC (00 386 59 070 500; europcar.si ), which has economy-sized cars from around €45 per day.
Additional research by Emily Kent-Smith
Norm Longley is the author of the Rough Guide to Slovenia ; the third edition has just been published, price £13.99.
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